JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor Party, largely written off in opinion polls ahead of a February 10 election, has gained ground during the Gaza war he helped to direct but apparently not enough to beat its rivals.
Although recent surveys predicted center-left Labor would win 17 of the 120 seats in parliament — double what previous polls had forecast — former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party was still the front-runner.
Likud looks set to win 29 seats, with the ruling centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking 27, according to the most recent polls, published on January 9.
The party that captures the largest number of seats is usually tapped to try to put together a government.
Kadima’s popularity has been hit by public discontent over the 2005 Gaza pullout it led and corruption scandals that forced Ehud Olmert to resign as the party’s leader and prime minister.
Olmert has been serving as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after next month’s election.
Israeli public support for the offensive Israel launched in the Gaza Strip on December 27 has been strong, although Hamas continued to fire rockets during the air and ground operation.
“It’s not enough to make Barak prime minister, but it almost guarantees him a top spot in the next government,” said political scientist Hani Zubida of Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center.
Wearing a black bomber jacket, Barak, a former chief of staff of the armed forces and Israel’s most decorated soldier, was photographed in planning sessions with generals and widely seen as the architect of a campaign that has hit Gaza hard.
As prime minister between 1999 and 2001, Barak failed in his attempts to make peace with the Palestinians and Syria, and his popularity plummeted.
The Likud’s Netanyahu, popularly known by his childhood nickname, “Bibi,” has been a favorite in polls since Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah guerrillas, a conflict many Israelis regarded as a failure.
Answering what he described as an appeal from Olmert, Netanyahu gave numerous interviews during the Gaza war to foreign media as part of a campaign to counter international criticism of Israeli attacks that caused civilian casualties.
Like other Israeli political leaders, he suspended campaigning during the conflict and said nothing in criticism of the way it was conducted.
“Bibi played his cards right. The Gaza offensive was the last thing he wanted before the elections, but he stayed quiet and handled it well,” Zubida said.
Much could depend on the public perception in Israel over whether the Gaza campaign has achieved its goals.
Continued Hamas rocket fire or failure to stop the Islamist group from rearming could bite into Barak’s newfound popularity, political commentators said.
Livni’s chances to become prime minister could depend on whether the international diplomatic support she secured for efforts to halt weapons smuggling to Hamas chokes off supply.
Editing by Myra MacDonald